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Most economists agree that trickle-down economics is more myth than reality. But, trickle-down leadership is another matter. What happens at the "top" will find its way into what happens everywhere in the organization. As some like to say "As above, so below."
Myths abound about leadership and everyone has a favorite definition, but whatever you think a leader is or should be, the ones you encounter will have a great effect on your life and the life of your organization. "The boss wants" is a phrase we hear all the time in business, education, government, profit or non-profit. People work to satisfy their leaders, and for a host of good reasons - to get ahead, to look like a team player, to be accepted by the culture and to make a difference.
The problem is while many leaders bring positive energy and dynamics to their organizations, some leaders have agendas that are not always reputable. And there's usually no everyday way to hold them accountable. Research and evidence suggest that today's most successful leaders articulate and promote values that, among other things, encourage individual and team empowerment, support empathic connections to all stakeholders and expand inclusion and engagement.
As a leadership development coach, I've worked with executives and their teams all over the world and have observed the effects those leaders have on their organizations. Over and over it's clear that the influence is wide and deep. When leaders reflect and articulate the values of the organization, there is a higher likelihood the organization will embrace those values. If they do not reflect or embody those values, the organization reels in response, even to the point of changing the core culture to accommodate the leader. This can be disastrous to established organizations that have worked hard to define and develop strong core values and behaviors.
Furthermore, individuals are affected when a leader violates corporate values and practices. Some members try to emulate the leader, some try and protect the values they thought were operational, and others give up in frustration. This leads to a sense of chaos as people complain, resist, or in a number of cases, with no obvious recourse, eventually leave in protest or dissatisfaction.
To keep organizations focused on their common values, visions, missions, and goals leaders have to be living models and examples of them. People expect their leaders to reward and support the corporate values no matter what obstacles arise. In many modern technology and research organizations, for example, where integrity and technical excellence are highly regarded values, research professionals will leave their jobs rather than sell out to lesser or contradictory values that may evolve or invade.
The new CEO of a technical research firm once told me he was shocked at how little regard the researchers had for making money. "It's as if they are motivated only by what they are interested in," he told me. I guess I shocked him in return when I said he was right, and that if he didn't get with the values of learning and discovery that drove the place, he would not succeed as their head. On both counts, he didn't.
Recently, we have seen examples of values in conflict:
Nothing can be more dangerous to the sustainability of an organization (or nation) than leaders who violate deeply held core values. In America, our society's commitments to free speech, electoral freedom, and a pluralistic society are what help to define our nation. When those values are denied or compromised, that seeps into the public domain, and all bets are off about how the future will evolve.
In Back to the Future II, Biff, a disreputable and lazy character, mysteriously and completely master minds a take over the world. His brand of leadership is masochistic, misogynistic, arrogant and violent. His style soon spreads to the entire culture he dominates, and the society is soon in total collapse. Whole neighborhoods are seen in ruin, families destitute, the workplace corrupt; the social order turns to chaos, driven by fear, greed, and loathing of one another. All of this is set in motion by the words and actions Biff engages in while in charge.
We see many examples of how "Biffs" can happen. Since the values and behaviors of the leader trickle down into the way others in the system think, lead, and behave, the rise of these figures is a real threat, one not easily reversed. In the case of Doc and Marty in Back to the Future II, their only recourse is to change the timelines of history to avoid the tragedy of Biff's assent to power. We don't have the luxury of a time traveling DeLorean, so protecting our future is up to all of us.
Eventually, leaders' behaviors come to roost at the highest leader's desk. In all of the examples mentioned here, real and fictional, and others we hear of everyday, no CEO or equivalent is left unscathed. Nevertheless, how the violators of the corporate ethos are dealt with, is usually not up to the individual employee, or citizen, who suffers the most from these episodes. Worse yet, the corporate employee doesn't even get a vote.
On the other hand, over the last several months, I've been working with a CEO who has taken on a company-wide culture change challenge to improve the results of her enterprise. She's visiting all the company's major sites, and attending each new session of the leadership development program, bringing a consistent message to everyone. The message is a clear distinction from their past, heralding a new organization, more inclusive, democratic and customer-focused than ever. She is emphasizing more holistic processes for communicating and decision making, and a broad commitment to creating customer joy. She is modeling more servant leadership behavior, aware of expectations, feelings and hopes shared by employees and customers alike.
When I asked why this change felt so important to her, she said: "If we are going to succeed as an organization, everyone must have a stake in our vision and goals and be supported to contribute in the ways they feel they best can and most want to. It's my role first to help them find that fit and then to be an example for them to follow. Also, I know that no customer ever has an experience in our stores that is better than our employee's experience."
The most important role the leader plays is to be the embodiment of the organization's belief system. What he or she professes and demonstrates is the final evidence of what the system actually is. Everyone is watching. As a result, what happens at the top does not stay at the top. It trickles, often floods into the mainstream and becomes a core part of the definition of the whole enterprise. This effects all of our lives, and may entirely define our circumstances.
So, it is crucial to the well-being of all of us that we hold our leaders accountable to move us forward while embracing our humanity, and that, together we do everything we can to make our future great again.
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